NEW YORK - A couple of months ago, the Obama administration was — at least rhetorically — targeting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for removal. Today, the U.S. has in a perverse way made Assad its partner.
The U.S. and Syria will now be working together on an improbable, even fantastical project: ridding a brutal country at war with itself of chemical weapons.
The agreement, reached over the weekend, to begin disarming Syria represents an astonishing victory for the Assad regime. It is also a victory for Assad’s main weapons supplier and diplomatic protector, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Which is not to say that this isn’t also a victory — a provisional, morally ambiguous victory — for President Barack Obama as well.
But first, Assad. Why is this agreement a victory for him? Two reasons:
1. So long as he doesn’t use chemical weapons on his people, he’ll be safe from armed Western intervention. Roughly 98 percent of the people who have died in the Syrian civil war so far have not been killed with chemical weapons, so obviously Assad and his regime have figured out ways to cause mass death in conventional ways. It’s safe to assume that he’ll increase the tempo of attacks on rebels and civilians, knowing now that he can do so with impunity. Obama won’t be outlining any further “red lines,” it would seem.
2. By partnering with Russia and the West on the disarmament process, a process that is meant to last into 2014 (and most likely won’t be finished for years, even if it is carried out in good faith, which is a big “if”), Assad has made himself indispensable. A post-Assad regime wouldn’t necessarily be party to this agreement, and might not even go through the motions. Syria, post-Assad, might very well be more fractured and chaotic than it is now, which is to say, even less of an environment in which United Nations weapons inspectors could safely go about their work. The U.S. now needs Assad in place for the duration. He’s the guy, after all, whose lieutenants know where the chemical weapons are.
This agreement represents a victory for Putin for fairly obvious reasons: He is the leader of a second-tier power who has nevertheless made himself into the new power player of the Mideast (he’s off to Iran now for discussions on its nuclear program). He has shown up an American president, and he will be considered, by the perpetually naive at least, to be something akin to a peacemaker, when, in fact, he’s a bloody-minded autocrat.
So why, if this agreement is a victory for Assad and Putin, could it also be considered a victory for Obama? In the narrowest political sense, it’s a victory because the president is no longer compelled to launch military strikes that the American people clearly didn’t support. In a broader sense, it’s a victory because, by threatening to attack, he has forced the Syrian regime to acknowledge that it does, in fact, possess chemical weapons, and that it will give them up. In so doing, the president has achieved his limited goal of reinforcing the international taboo on the use of chemical weapons, and that’s not nothing.
Eventually, though, this limited Western victory might feel like a moral and strategic defeat, for two reasons.
1. Our allies across the Middle East, having seen the U.S. promise to help remove Assad and then not follow through, will further doubt American steadfastness and friendship and will reorient their policies accordingly, with some adverse consequences for the U.S.
2. This plan probably won’t work. Assad is a lying, murdering terrorist, and lying, murdering terrorists aren’t, generally speaking, reliable partners, except for other lying, murdering terrorists. In any case, disarmament experts say that this process, properly carried out, would take years and years to accomplish, but of course they really don’t know how long this might take because no one has ever tried to locate and secure hundreds of tons of chemical weapons on an active battlefield, particularly one in which Hezbollah and al-Qaida are vying for supremacy.
But for now, the president has underscored the international norm governing the use of chemical weapons, and he has done what the American people say they wanted — staying out of the conflict. He may not be a clear winner in this drama, like Assad and Putin are, but compared to Congress — in particular its reflexively isolationist, self-destructive Republican caucus — he looks like Churchill.
Who are the real losers in this episode? That one is easy. The Syrian people. They will continue to be raped, tortured and slaughtered in their homes, in their markets, on their streets, in their hospitals and in their mosques. So long as they die in conventional ways, no one will pay their deaths much mind at all.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.